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Missional Church: “A Framework for Discernment: How Churches Can Join the Mission of God,” Part III

April 30, 2011

III.  The Process of Discernment and Evaluation

 Once congregations are geared to see crises as invitations to missional change, substantial theological reflection has taken place, and spirit-led teams are created that will prayerfully enter into a discerning process, then congregations are in a position to begin discerning how to find God’s purpose for their particular context.  All that remains is to flesh out a process that will allow discernment to take place in an orderly fashion and an alternative way to evaluate the “effectiveness” of a missional church.  I offer Van Gelder’s process as an eminently useful approach to discernment, and Kirsteen Kim’s criteria for judging the discernment process[1]


1.  “Framing a Process” of Discernment[2]

            Van Gelder suggest that we follow five steps for practically discerning God’s leading:  that of “attending,” “Asserting,” “Agreeing” and “Acting.”

Attending.  In the attending stage, the discerning team and the congregation consider the context both of the congregation and the surrounding community.  I have already mentioned this briefly in the section of crises, but here we may add the following question.  Assuming a congregation has already sensed some basic problems or issues, it may then ask “In light of the issues to be addressed or the problems to be solved, what can be learned from giving careful attention to the situation as it is presented?”[3]  This leads to a discussion that offers multiple perspectives of the situation.  This brain storming session is essential to deriving a holistic picture of the situation that the congregation seeks to bring God’s mission to. 

Once the situation has been assessed,[4] the congregation and/or discernment team should reflect theologically on the situation.  We may return to the questions in the introduction (“What is God doing?” and “What does God want to do [through the congregation]?”)  We may add the questions from the “Theological Questions” section such as:  How does the Gospel address this situation?  What does God’s salvation in its fullness look like in this situation?  This process is not something that happens quickly, and leaders should give a great deal of time to this step of the discernment process.

Asserting.  In this step, the community or team offers a number of “strategic choices of action” but “doing so in relation to both biblical theological frameworks and theoretical insights from the social sciences and common wisdom.”[5]  As possible actions are suggested, they may be guided by the theological questions given above, other biblical and theological emphases, data from the social sciences.  They may also be assessed initially in terms of possible consequences of a given choice.  It is well known in discussions of diffusion theory, that actions brought to a community may have results not anticipated by the initiating agent. 

I might also suggest that at this stage, communities may actually experiment with various “misisonal initiatives.”  This point is made by MacIlvaine in his different, but useful process.[6]  Here, in a limited way, missional congregations can see how different options are received by the local community.  Perhaps small-group ministries take on missional identities within their small groups each taking on a mini-project.  Experimenting need not imply that such a congregation is merely trying different “strategies,” because at the heart of this entire process is that of prayerful discernment, as we will see in the following step. 

Agreeing.  Once strategic options have been offered, the community and/or team actually enters into the process of “mutually discerning” the option that they feel God is leading them in.  Though prayer will have hopefully permeated the entire process, it is at this time that the team enters into concentrated prayer, inviting “the active participation of the Spirit into the discernment and decision process.”[7]  Obviously this is also a time to review the option by placing it through the biblical and theological lenses using the above questions.  What is so advantageous of this process to this point is the fact that it combines both subjective elements (prayer and listening) with objective/experimental elements (studying context, asking guiding questions, and brainstorming options).  It does not depend on a lone-ranger hearing the voice of God in his personal prayer time, nor does it constantly require the presence of extraordinary revelations (although this certainly be welcome if God chose to give them).  Instead, it combines practical wisdom, intentional planning, and humble and prayerful spirit-led community. 

Action.  As the title suggest, this is obviously the phase where the implementation of an option takes place.  However, it is my view that this can be the must underdeveloped stage, for the reason that while brainstorming and discussing ideas is often fun and rewarding, this phase requires extensive planning and administration.  Thus, leaders often undershoot this stage.  Van Gelder offers the following advice:  “An implementation plan should have already been developed during the agreeing phase of the process [or at least have been started] and should include both action steps and a timetable.”[8]  There are also three important components of this stage that are worthy of noting:  (1) a communication system that keeps people informed, (2) constant prayer by the team (or by another group within the congregation), and (3) regular feedback concerning the progress made.

Assessment.  As the name suggests, in this final phase, the congregation and/or team reviews the implementation of the strategic option.  Though it may be tempting to focus purely on results, I would suggest learning from the entire process each time.  How developed was the action plan? Was the amount of time for the process of reasonable?  How have members of the congregation experienced a deepening of their relationship with God through this process?  How has unity been formed?  What problems were encountered and could they have been avoided? These questions are not only practical for the actual implementation, but also useful for members of a missional congregation to learn discernment in their own lives. 

2.  An alternative set of criteria by which to assess the entire process of discernment[9]

Though Van Gelder’s process is comprehensive in its procedure and its assessment, I find that Kirsteen Kim offers four criteria that are especially helpful for the missional church.  With the process of Van Gelder, without intentionality, churches may focus on concrete results without probing deeper to see if they have, indeed, been faithful in partnering with God through the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Is it possible to “do” missional activities without being a missional church?  That is, is it possible to do actions that if led by God, would be thoroughly missional, but could very well be done without the leading of God as well?  This will become clear momentarily.

Criterion #1: The Confession of Jesus is Lord

This would seem to be an unnecessary criterion—after all, doesn’t every church proclaim this?  However, as the social gospel movement of Liberal Protestantism proved, it is definitely possible to do the “works” of Jesus without an explicit claim to him being Lord in the sense of him being risen from the dead.  Further, it is very possible to be a church full of programs and activities without a church that is a vibrant worshipping community.  If Jesus is Lord, he will be the impetus of missional action and worshipped as such. 

Criterion #2The Evidence of the Fruit of the Spirit

 When the Spirit is leading our congregation, the fruit of the Spirit will inevitably follow.  As the church participates in God’s mission, are they also individually and corporately being filled with the Spirit’s fruit?  This is important, because so often church activities began with joyful obedience to God turn into prideful displays of self-seeking glory.  I hope that this is always the exception rather than the rule, but using the fruit of the Spirit as a criterion for assessment will help minimize this possibility.

Criterion #3The Evidence of the Gifts of the Spirit

 Certainly this is a controversial one, but it need not be.  Whether one agrees that tongues should accompany missional activity or not, most would agree that it would be beneficial to accomplish God’s missionary purposes with such gifts as faith, healing, giving, administration, discernment, and so forth.  When the Spirit’s gifts accompany the church, these things happen in supernatural measure—the church is empowered to do the ministry of the Lord.  Does this type of empowerment accompany the church’s work?

Criterion #4:  Being on the Side of the Poor

Kim calls this one a “Liberational” criterion.  We could obviously extend the idea of the “poor” out further to include other marginalized people groups, but the effect is the same.  Are the missionl activities of a local church causing others to be set free?  Are racial, economic, religious, gender, generational, etc., walls being torn down in favor of reconciliation?  Is that beginning to show in our community? 

Though these criteria create high expectations, we should hope for nothing less in our desire to be missional.  In the end, the only way to know if a church is being led by the Spirit is if the evidence of the Spirit is clearly demonstrated in the life and activities of its communities.  Though we can assess this, the recognition of such evidence is ultimately not up to us to make, it is for our surrounding community to determine if we are indeed a community led by God.[10] 


IV. Conclusion


The fact of the matter is that the church is in desperate need to reclaim its commitment to be a community led by the Spirit, and not merely by the ingenuity of man.  There is no end to the strategies, methods, books, and seminars on how to “grow” a church.  However, if we begin here, we may do so without God by our side.  However, if we will start with a commitment to aligning with God’s missionary purposes, discerning what He is doing and joining with him as a missional congregation, we can be sure that God will lead us at every step—and we will likely grow in the process. 

[1] See Kirsteen Kim, “Case Study:  How Will We Know When the Holy Spirit Comes?  The Question of Discernment,” in Evangelical Review of Theology 33.1 (2009): 95.

[2] I use Van Gelder’s heading, as I can think of none better.   The following steps are found in The Ministry of the Missional Church, 116-119.

[3] Van Gelder, 116.

[4] It would be appropriate at this stage to employ tools from social sciences where possible to accurately gather information.  This is one area where the church-growth movement proved useful.  See Van Rheenan, “Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives,” 26.

[5] Van Gelder, 118.

[6] I offer MacIlvaine’s process here as an alternative to Van Gelder.  Step One is the “awareness of the need for missional transition within the church.  At this level the church begins to sense the crisis within the wider culture, and simultaneously senses God’s nudge to exit their comfort zone.”  In Step Two there is a “growing understanding about what a missional transition might mean for the church.”  In Step Three, the church evaluates “what is happening in the church.  Jim Collins dictum, ‘Face the brutal facts,’ is a step toward the process of sensing the future God has in store for the church.”  In Step Four, the team creates “missional experiments within the immediate local community and then evaluating those experiments.” And finally in Step Five, the community “commits to a process of including majority church members in missional ventures so that a culture of communitas begins to develop.”  In “How Churches Become Missional,” 228. 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 119

[9] These criteria are found on page 95 of Kirsteen Kim’s “Case Study.”

[10] Kim, “Case Study,” 94.

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